As the nation processed an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, Alexandria Johnson, a 26-year-old middle school social studies teacher in Issaquah, was up late “doomscrolling” on Twitter, scanning for material she could use to answer the inquisitive preteens awaiting her on Zoom.
In place of her planned two-hour lesson on medieval Chinese dynasties Thursday, Johnson answered questions about what a noose was, and why a member of the mob supporting President Donald Trump that stormed the U.S. Capitol carried a Confederate flag. She offered students the option to discuss the events and reflect on four images from Wednesday’s riot, some depicting racist and anti-Semitic symbols.
Johnson wasn’t required to do this by her district, which encouraged her to proceed with the normal lesson plan as much as possible.
Though more routine in the Trump era, classroom conversations about racism and politics are still fraught with complexities for public school teachers, who can run the risk of professional repercussions if they are perceived to be sharing their political leanings.
The coronavirus pandemic creates added pressures: When class is held over video chat, as is the case for 85% of Washington state students, students might be off camera or less engaged, the teachers and students haven’t formed a bond in person, and a parent may be within earshot and catch something out of context.
Johnson and other teachers across the state waded in anyway, seeing these events as opportunities for critical thinking and their classes as important spaces to tackle misinformation and hate speech.
“At its most basic level, it feels like my job is to help my students grow as individuals, and connect with them when they have questions,” said Johnson.
Those teaching younger kids took a different approach. In Highline, teacher Jaymie Torres Ibarra left the Zoom classroom open to her third graders at Thursday’s morning meeting to “give them a chance to explore their feelings.”
More of them, she said, brought up the Amber Alert they’d just seen. “That is where our class direction headed,” she said, adding that she saw her job as “giving them … a space to feel, and letting them know that we’re here for them.”
Priyanka Jayanthi, a kindergarten teacher at Queen Anne Elementary School in Seattle, had already talked about the election with her students in November, so class time was a matter of connecting the dots. After emailing parents about her plans the night before, she spent a few minutes at the start of class asking students to share what they heard about what happened. She was surprised by how much they already knew.
Some said they were angry. Another student said they were sad to hear someone was shot. Another worried more people would get sick because few were wearing masks in the crowd. She told them it was OK to feel that way.
She gave them a basic summary of facts.
“I asked, ‘Do you remember who won the election?’ and I explained that there were lies spread about who won the election, and that Wednesday was the day [Congress] was going to name Joe Biden as the next president.”
Her primary goal, she said, was to give them a safe place to talk and clear up confusion.
One challenge of learning remotely: World-changing things might occur on a day without live instruction.
That’s what happened to Cedric Brinkmann, a senior at Eastlake High School in Sammamish. His school, run on Microsoft Teams, uses Wednesdays as “asynchronous,” or independent time.
Teachers emailed students telling them to watch the news or Twitter, so he saw the rioters live.
Immediately, he was worried. Brinkmann is from Germany, and Wednesday reminded him of his grandmother’s memories of growing up under the Third Reich. “Not having a democracy is terrible,” he said.
For the most part, school left him on his own to process. “Dealing with it by yourself can be beneficial: you form your own opinion,” he said. “It can also be bad: You may not be getting the full picture.”
In college, educators translated news into lectures for audiences of more than 100. Jake Grumbach, a University of Washington assistant professor of political science, taught an undergraduate Introduction to Labor Studies lecture that started at 1 p.m. on Wednesday, after tear gas had been released in the Capitol Rotunda. So he started “emergency teaching.”
What he knew when class started: “There was a mob of far-right Trump supporters, a paramilitary-style costumed mob entering the Capitol.” During the lecture, the rioters were escorted out. There’s enough scholarship on insurrections and political polarization, he said, that he could teach on the fly.
With his roughly 145 students — who filled his screen with Zoom squares — he talked about reconstruction-era America, political parties and their coalitions and Wednesday’s legal ramifications.
“I just didn’t have much time to prep new slides,” he said.
Across the state, parents caught snippets of how their kids’ teachers discussed — or ignored — current events. For some, it was a reminder of another complex school day. On Sept. 11, 2001, Darcy Brixey heard the news in her car before entering a middle school library, where she was set to discuss world literature.
That Eastside school had chosen to not discuss the terror attack; televisions were off. Brixey, who worked at a public library, went on autopilot, sensing teachers were anxious for an update. It was a different time when America was attacked by outside enemies. No one had smartphones.
This week, she watched her two children — both Seattle Public School students — learn about the attack from within.
Her daughter, an eighth-grade student at Whitman Middle School, had American history class on Wednesday. As the news unfolded, students asked questions.
Brixey was impressed how the teacher helped students digest such sensitive news remotely.
“Productivity for so many people went out the window,” she said. “Teachers don’t have that luxury. If the world is crumbling around them, they are still here teaching. They don’t get to leave.”
That’s why Suzanne Mayer, a math teacher at Seattle’s Aki Kurose Middle School, spent time on Thursday helping students understand more than equations.
She posed the question: If you were stuck in an elevator for five minutes with the politician of your choice, what would you say?
She expected her students, most of whom are not white, “to be rattled in the way that some of my kids were rattled when Trump became president.”
While a few students texted her saying that they were crying and couldn’t make it to class, she was surprised that many were simply too overwhelmed to engage.
“They said in the chat, ‘This has been my life ever since I could remember, this doesn’t even faze me anymore,’” she said. “It was heartbreaking. It was so much par for the course that they weren’t even responsive anymore.”
In Yakima County’s Grandview School District, high school U.S. history teacher Ryan Harvey said he can read body language during an in-person class to understand when students aren’t comfortable with a topic.
“Virtually, it’s more challenging,” Harvey said. Even getting students to turn on their camera most days “is something that we battle.”
Across the county in the West Valley School District, high school civics teacher Kevin Brennan said the physical separation delays the discussions.
“This would be an automatic. … ‘Here we go. Let’s get into small groups and discuss, and then in a big group.’ And you could control the room to make sure it’s a safe environment,” said Brennan. “But on the flip side, we’re managing it. We’re going to have that conversation anyway.”
Seattle Times Education Lab engagement editor Jenn Smith and Yakima Herald-Republic staff writer Janelle Retka contributed reporting.